Medieval Book Prices again

Ælfric Bata, about whom little is known other than he was a student of Ælfric of Eynsham and that he wrote Latin scholastic colloquies, offers a nice picture of monastic book sales presumably from around the first part of the eleventh century. His Colloquia preserve a scene in which a student offers to write a book and sell his work. At the beginning of the scene, one young student states that he will prick the quire that he made yesterday so that he can rule it, a nice description of the pre-binding process for laying out the page. The students and master also admire the work of an older scribe who can no longer write due to poor eyesight.

The master then asks one of the students to write something for him and receives the following response:*

You, scribe, good and handsome lad, I ask you humbly. Write me an exemplar on a roll or sheet, or on a parchment or tablet.
If you’re willing to pay me.
Fist write me a psalter or hymnal, or an epistolary or troper, or a missal or a good itinerary or capitulary, well composed and laid out, properly written and corrected, and I’ll give you good pay. Or I’ll buy all those things from you right now–I’ll give you their price in gold or silver, or in horses or mares, or oxen, sheep, swine, goats, clothing, wine, honey, grain or beans.
Nothing would suit me more than for you to give me coins, since one who has coins or silver can get everything eh wants.
Now you’re a sharp one.
You’re much craftier than I, who am a simple little fellow.
Stop that kind of talk. Let’s speak better! How many coins must I give you for one missal?
If you want to have it, you must give me two pounds of pure silver. And if you don’t want it, somebody else will. This is an expensive thing and somebody else should buy it more dearly than you.
Even if someone else wants to be so foolish, I don’t. I want to be careful and buy your book at the right price–at the price my friends will tell me it’s worth. That’s a fair price.
But how much will you give me?
I don’t want to give quite that much…
What do you want then? How many coins will you pay, or how many mancuses?
Believe me, I don’t dare give you more or buy it more dearly. Take this if you please. It’s not worth more. I’ll pay you twelve mancuses and count them into your hand. What else can I do? I’ll do only what you want.
Count the coins here and now so I can tell if they’re valuable and whether they’re pure silver.
I will.
These really are good ones.
Indeed they are.

These twelve mancuses represent 360 pennies and depending on how one interprets the evidence from the Zaluski psalter, may be comparable to the later book or may represent a much discounted volume.

In either case, the student’s comments are interesting given that the Rule of St Benedict (chapter 57) states: “with regard to the prices of such things [i.e. goods sold by monastic artisans], let not the vice of avarice creep in, but let the always be sold a little cheaper than by men in the world.” The student doesn’t offer to sell his work ‘a little cheaper’, but haggles fairly persistently for the highest price possible. Given that these are idealized dialogues, it may be too much to describe the student’s behaviour as the norm, but, nonetheless, his disposition hints at the extent to which, despite the rhetoric of isolation, contemplation and removal from worldly matters, the early medieval monastery played an important part in the local material economy.

* Translated by David Porter in Scott Gwara and David Porter, eds., Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997), on pp. 135-137.

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